For Hiten Noonwal, a gender-fluid performance artist and designer based in Delhi who teaches at various fashion and designing colleges, it is often about combining art and fashion. “If my class is about history of costumes, I will go dressed up as Nefertiti or Mary Antoinette. I find it a much more profound way to express myself as well as explain the subject and the students too find it fascinating,” Hiten says. But ask them about the world of online dating platforms and Hiten’s buoyed enthusiasm somewhat wavers. “It is not pretty, most of the time. People judge you based all the time and also a lot of the messages are vile, to put it mildly,” they add.
For many members of the LGBTQ community looking for a speck of love online, Hiten has just touched the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to facing hostility, toxic sexism and in worst-case scenarios, harassment of both mental and physical nature. Dating apps are a huge part of the online landscape and with India taking some positive strides in the inclusion of the queer community members in the mainstream, especially after the Supreme Court’s historic strike down of Section 377 in 2018, these apps have also been vying for members of the community to sign up with them. Tinder’s ‘More Choices, more voices’ feature brought in 23 new options in the gender category the same year as the Supreme Court verdict. The concept of inclusion has been promoted heavily on all of the popular dating platforms online. But not all of it has been a rosy ride for those looking to pursue romantic liaisons. And while experiences on dating apps can be somewhat better to unpleasant to downright horrible, it’s almost always the last one for trans people.
Hiten elaborates, “Firstly, there’s always the conformists. People usually say ignorant things but most of the time it is just deliberate and then it gets offensive. I understand how looking for love online can be a far-fetched idea, especially for us, but sometimes the abuse is also from people from the community itself. They want you to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, grow facial hair a certain way and if not, the DMs just get offensive with every message.”
Rahul Sinha Roy, a PhD candidate who is pursuing a study on ‘crimes enabled by gay dating platforms users in India’ with the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Justice summarizes it best. “Dating platforms can land you an amazing date or a horrible nightmare. Of course, majority of my experiences (like anyone using these apps) lie somewhere in between these extremes. Amazing dates can mean deep conversations, or great sex or both, leading to perhaps a second date. Nightmares can include anything from extortion to robbery to sexual assault.”
And for many, things have indeed taken the horrific route. Among a string of such incidents, one shocking case against the queer community was reported from UP’s Greater Noida area very recently where a young man was allegedly assaulted, forced into having unnatural sex and blackmailed for money by four men who lured him via Grindr, media reports said.
Users have often described experiences on these apps as below par as abuse victims have often faced outright toxic comments or been harassed for nudes on DMs. “I think there are features that need revaluation on the app. If a perpetrator blocks you after a crime, you lose all information of them, leaving you with nothing to take to the police,” Rahul says. An email to Grindr requesting comment on such experiences has not been responded to yet.
The Noida incident is among many such incidents and most of them go unreported too, because, for a lot of these people from the LGBTQ community, trust is often lacking when it comes to law enforcement officials. And it is not just in India, studies in the US has also found often hate crime incidents against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are consistently underreported.
For Rahul, during the course of their study, one thing that they say stuck is the lack of support structures for people who have faced these crimes. “Disclosing any crime incident is hard; one that involves outing oneself is near impossible for many,” they say.
And while most of these platforms are slowly but eventually trying to make the apps a better place for all, it is still a work in progress and bigotry is a problem much more prevalent. When asked to comment, a Tinder spokesperson pointed out a Traveler Alert feature that appears when the user opens the app in one of these countries which have laws criminalizing LGBTQ status.
The app is also launching a new AI-induced feature called ‘Are You Sure’ that will be tracking anything that might contain harmful language.
Pawan Dhall, the founding trustee of Varta Trust elaborates on a deeper level as to how social conditioning often plays a major role in such hate crimes or even the constant abuse many faces on the dating apps. “There’s still a lot of social stigma attached to the queer community which is not going to go away very soon. One of the reasons this is happening is because there are people on these dating apps who are looking to extort money through blackmail by exploiting queer people. Even though the laws of the country may have changed, it still hasn’t reflected adequately on the society and many people are looking to find love or companionship online and they are the easiest ones to fall prey to such unfortunate incidents.” Varta Trust often organises webinars or drives to promote safer dating for queer people. You can check out one of their beautifully made short films on the same here.
He adds, “Internal vulnerability can also often compel people to seek out love and validation online and not everyone is well-intentional online.”
But users say a lot more needs to be done. Some suggest photographic verification can help alleviate some of the hesitation in users of getting catfished. Sensitizing law enforcement officials to the needs of the LGBTQ people can also play a huge role in improving many outcomes of hate crimes reportages with police.
Perpetrators of such hate speech/crimes against LGBTQ members need to be brought to book but often dating apps are reluctant to do so because, at the end of the day, it’s all about number games, more users and subscriptions, Pawan says. “Also these offenders immediately delete their profiles once they have verbally abused someone and apps also seem to not have the right technology to locate them. And lastly, there’s always a certain sense of apathy from the law
enforcement officials,” he rues.
“Over the course of my interviews with members of the community, I feel the change in terms of how much more comfortable people have become with talking about queer issues. And that is one thing about law: it does not change a country in a moment, but it surely sets the stage for change. And I think the same applies to dating platforms in some capacity as well,” Rahul signs off.